Respecting traditions

Yesterday, February 3rd, was yet another quite important day on the Japanese calendar, setsubun no hi This year, we didn't do the ehoumaki, and I didn't have any beans around, so the day was just another day. I feel just a tiny bit sad about that. (Read more about setsubun no hi and ehoumaki).

I do like to talk about the rituals and traditions connected to food that exist in Japanese culture on these pages on occasion. Like any culture, Japan has quite a few of these traditions; many are still practised, some have fallen into obscurity, others (like ehoumaki) used to be rather obscure but have been revived or popularized again for various reasons. There are a lot of interesting little beliefs and superstitions attached to food too. Why, for instance, would eating soba noodles help to bring in the new year? Well, why not?

Recently, an anonymous person left this rather angry comment to my light-hearted article about chopstick etiquette. I guess that person missed the light-heartedness of it. S/he was objecting mostly, I think, to the Buddhist custom (at least in Japan) of picking up the deceased's bone fragments with chopsticks after the body has been cremated.

In case you can't see the comment at the above link (you may need to change your comments-displayed-per-page settings), here it is:

I don't think sticking your chopsticks upright in your rice is such a bad thing. There are no such things as spirits or luck. I find such superstitions offensive. Here's an idea, how about NOT USING COOKING UTENSILS FOR CORPSES! I mean, invent a special pair of tongs or something else, you know? How hard is that? Someone has to take a stand and stop the endless cycle of stupidity and respect for irrational belief.

My first instinct was to just laugh this off. I mean, why take the opinion of some angry anonymous person who may be having a bad day, right? Then I started writing a response. Funnily enough, that anonymous angry person helped me clarify my own thoughts about the often arcane rituals and traditions associated with religion and other aspects of society.

So, instead of burying them in a comment (since this is my site and all ^_^), here they are.

I'm not condoning age-old religious practices. And I never want to condemn them or dismiss them as you [Mr. or Ms. anon.] seem to be doing. I'm just stating them as they are.

I'm actually a rather secular, non-religious person. If I had to classify myself on some survey, I guess I'd go with agnostic. However, I respect religious rituals, as well as the right of people anywhere to practice what they believe in.

For instance:

I find it a bit hard to get my head around the Catholic ritual of eating a dry little wafer and considering it part of the body of Christ (also practiced by other Christian sects in some way or another). I find the ritual of dunking a person, even babies, in water to commit them to God, or putting an ash thumbprint on their foreheads, kind of puzzling too. But I respect that many people do believe that it's a sacred part of their faith.

I once read somewhere that kosher restrictions about not mixing dairy with meat, or designating some seafood and pork as 'unclean',are probably based on now-arcane climatic and other restrictions that existed back in the Middle East region way back when. I tend to believe that. As a pork-lover, I think it's a shame that observant Jews are losing out on...bacon! But, again, I respect the traditions and beliefs that exist behind the tradition of keeping kosher.

There is an Indian religion called Jainism, that believes in non-violence towards all living beings. Not only are practitioners vegetarian, they are also banned from eating root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and radishes, because the plant needs to be killed to be eaten. I mean - no potatoes! And I love radishes! Surely root vegetables are non-sentient? But - I respect their beliefs...and sort of wonder how a cuisine like that tastes too. (no onions?!)

So, back to the chopsticks. As I said, I am not really religious myself. But, Buddhist funeral rites are part of the culture I come from. Sure, it seems a bit arcane that chopsticks stood upright in a bowl of rice means it's served to the dead, and some people may be grossed out by the idea of chopsticks being used to pick up the bones of the deceased. But, they are part of the ritual, and bring continuity and unity to a society. They are not harmful rituals.

All I ask is that people respect these rituals and traditions, even if they don't understand them. Don't sneer at them or laugh at them. We live in a society that's moving so fast, that sheds old habits constantly. So, as quaint as some of these old rituals may seem, I think they are a way of connecting us to our collective past.

So, anyway! While we're talking about traditons and rituals that are food-related, do you have any more obscure ones from your culture or region to share? I'd love to hear them!

Filed under:  philosophy japan traditions

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Well said! I'm half Japanese and found this person's comments totally stupid. In Japan, we cremate, so we aren't using chopsticks (which aren't cooking utensils) on corpses. You don't believe in luck of any kind??? If you are this stupid, really - keep it to yourself!

I'm half Japanese myself... and I think that anon. poster has a bad attitude.

All cultures have rules regarding "proper manners" while eating.

People saying stuff like that just shows ignorant they are of other cultures. If your anonymous commenter is from an English-speaking country, well do they ever say "good luck","fingers crossed" or if someone sneezes "bless you"? What about "bye"? Do they touch/knock on wood? Do they use the words "Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday"? Do they blow kisses to people they love? Do they do anything special at Christmas? If they're married do they wear a ring on the fourth finger of their left hand? Ok you get the picture.

All the above come from some religious, superstitious or folk belief, but it doesn't necessarily mean a person upholds those beliefs. And if your commenter isn't from a culture that does these things, I can bet their culture has a myriad of other such practices.

I'm sure not every Japanese person thinks about why you don't stick your chopsticks in your rice like that. It's just something you should never do. Hey and didn't a recent international survey just show the Japanese are one of the least religious nations in the world?

Sorry, I know this is supposed to be a food blog but those kind of comments just get my goat!

While I don't really agree with what the anonymous commenter wrote, and while I do love Japan and its culture, I have to admit that in Japan (and in my experience Korea) almost everything, even the most mundane everyday objects, seems to symbolise something else, and after a while it can become a little... tiresome. This symbolises long life, that symbolises fertility, this symbolises death, that symbolises youth, this symbolises respect and on and on. I try to be patient and open-minded about these things, but I wouldn't really blame a tired, homesick foreigner at the end of a long day's work in Japan thinking: &%@! it, I'm tired of walking on eggshells, fearful of causing offence by not knowing about some random object's symbolism, I'm going to leave my chopsticks standing up in my bowl of rice for once!

Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but this was the next link I clicked, and it prompted me to come back:

I think the original commenter was rude. I also think the commenter was right.

I don't like having customs imposed on me, not even coming from my own culture (I'm of Asian descent). So at home, I can stick my chopsticks in rice, and flip over the fish to get to the other side, because sometimes it's just easier. But I can't go out and do that. Well, I could, but I don't because it would be perceived as ignorant or rude, and it just wouldn't be worth it. It's a minor inconvenience, in this case.

I'm a pragmatic person, and I would prefer that useless customs did not exist. Not everyone recognizes the right to be different, and inevitably there are attempts to make people conform to unreasonable expectations. In the worst cases, differences in custom can be dangerous and destructive, especially when they influence politics and the law. Someone else may take the view that traditions are fascinating, and make people different and interesting, and are thus invaluable. I think both views have merit, but I lean towards the first. I think the comments so far have been too quick to dismiss a valid perspective, perhaps because it was advanced with a needlessly aggressive tone.

What you are saying seems to me is, since you find certain customs useless, in your point of view, you want everyone else to share your point of view, regardless of whether they share your opinion or not. That to me is not much different from people who prefer to follow certain customs and impose them on others.

I agree with Florence Fabricant's advice; people's differences should be respected, within reason and depending on the time, place and occasion. If I go to a dedicated vegan's house, I'm not going to insist on having pork chops If I invite them to my house, I'm not going to serve them char siu. But if we go out to a restaurant, I'm hoping they are respectful of my decision to order steak if I want it.


I'm suddenly reminded of the Ursula le Guin SF classic The Left Hand of Darkness Lathe of Heaven, where all the peoples of the world are turned into a uniform shade of grey, to avoid conflicts based on race. It may be that we are heading in that kind of direction as a society. I hope I don't live long enough to see it, if that's the case.

That's not quite what I meant. I was not trying to say that the world's customs should conform to my personal judgment of what is and is not useless (I can see how my previous statement could be interpreted that way). It's more like I wish that 'useless' customs, in some true sense of the term (a net negative to humanity), would die out. They don't, so this was really more of a philosophical exercise, and I will continue to not stick my chopsticks in my rice. You may not think such a definition of useful or useless is even possible. I believe it is, in principle, but again that's just a philosophical issue. In practice, I smile and nod too (but I don't have to like it).

That's The Lathe of Heaven, actually, not The Left Hand of Darkness. Both are great, though! :)

Oops you're right Dina! Got my Le Guin titles mixed up there. At least I didn't call it something Earthsea ^_^;

I find it terribly sad how "fast paced" we've become, to the point of not giving any meaning to anything simply because we're on to the next marginally important something or other. (Which may explain why we're still watching "reality based" programs) Traditions, in my view, remind us that people, places and yes, things have importance. Is it really too hard just to smile and nod if someone points out a belief they hold dear to them?'

On the scale of religious beliefs I am a Cradle Catholic, but find myself to be a practicing "mean people suck" kind of adult.

I'm glad you didn't just brush off that comment, especially if it was bothering you! It bothered me too, just reading it now, and I'm kind of appalled at it. I found that post you wrote about chopstick etiquette very interesting. My Taiwanese mother always told me not to stick my chopsticks upright in my rice too, citing bad luck and disrespect (but I never knew why before you posted about it! thanks!) I don't think there's anything wrong with being respectful, no matter what you think of the reason!

I find it interesting that those sorts of comments are often anonymous. I think some people are just looking for an argument, and you are smart in not giving them one.

completely agree with all that you say..
Living in India with so many customs and traditions that vary from place to place and family to family it can get quite confusing ..but i guess one also learns to try their best to respect the others tradition..
Just as an aside, i grew up in a jain family and must say typical jain food can be yum and Jains are some of the most "international" eaters i have seen here in india....

I am very glad that you responded to that ignorant person. Traditions are what cultures (not necessarily religions) are built on. They are what make individuals and groups who they are. When reading/learning about different cultures to me, it is very important to find out about the traditions.

In your rebuttal to this anon, you mentioned the kosher restrictions. I grew up following a similar 'law' as taught in Leviticus 11. While I no longer follow most of this tradition, it is still a part of my cultural upbringing and I would never think of telling someone still following these traditions (or educating about this culture) that they are 'respecting something irrational.'

Please keep educating us!

I'm really neutral with people who want to follow tradition or not. It's really their choice. I just found it fun to know them and appreciate them, though sometime it can be quite tiring.

Now to food!!!! I'm of Chinese descent in Indonesia, and there's a tradition in the dining table, that the oldest have to take the food first. Also that you always eat a onde-onde ( a kind of small round mochi in sugar water) at mother's day. Overall, I enjoy tradition, mine and everyone else. It gives life more colour :)

Bravo Maki! Seems to me your anonymous critic might meditate on happiness and peace and knowing that one cannot make choices for others. Loving kindness.

Well put, Maki. I'm Jewish and I think all of this can be summed up in a simple tradition my Rabbi taught when I was growing up: "Respect the custom of the house." In other words, if you are a guest in someone's home, country or culture, do your best to respect their ways.

Obvious ignorance of custom is, I think, excusable -- I'm sure if I were to go to Japan, I would make error after error with no idea of my perceived rudeness. But I would hope someone would (gently!) point it out so I could try not to do it in future.

Custom and culture make us unique and allow visitors to experience a different way of doing/perceiving things, some of which may actually have a profound effect on our individual points of view. What could be wrong with that?

you tell them Maki! I think if someone is gonna complain they should use their name not comment as anonymous!

Hi Maki, as I read your post and the comment the anon person left it got me to thinking. I don't care who we are or whether we know it or not but traditions are interwoven in out very existence. Every where we turn there are traditions that we may not even know is a tradition. So for anyone to just dismiss them as irrelivant is just stupid.

My grandmother was born and raised in the south where there are a lot of superstitions and traditions. An example is the week leading up to New Years she would clean her house from top to bottom and on New Years Eve she would sweep that last bit of dust out the back door. She told me that the way your house is when you go into the new year is the way it will be all year and the sweeping out of the last bit of dust out the back door was to get rid of the old to make way for the new. Now I never practice this but she believed it and I respected it.

Another New Year tradition was to eat a bowl of black eyed peas on New Years day to bring luck for the new year, well I don't like black eyed peas so there you go.

When did it become ok to stop respecting each other? Just sayin!!!!

Others have said it better, and it just upsets me how rude and ignorant that person was...It reminds me of when I was younger and my little brother or other children at our secular school would rail against the teachers for trying to teach us anything about religion, when religion and other beliefs in general are so important to understand given the way they affect the world. To be unable to hear about it without taking it as a personal attack is ridiculous. Perhaps self-centered?

I wanted to comment that this conversation struck me because just today I was talking to coworkers (Taiwanese and Indian) about customs of burial. They were talking about traditions (religious, but not JUST that. It becomes culture and is so deeply engrained that even several generations removed, you can feel the influence without noticing you WERE influenced) in which the dead are buried in contact with the earth and 3 years later dug up so that the bones can be taken to temple? The various bad things that are supposed to have happened to the spirit if the body has not decayed in that time, etc. The idea of "dust to dust" which exists in so many cultures and is taken with varying degrees of seriousness in today's world is fascinating.

As for the chopsticks...I thought it was somewhat commonly known, even among non-Asians, since the belief is such a common one among Asian cultures...I am adopted and completely Americanized with Caucasian parents, but have always felt uncomfortable in a superstitious kind of way sticking my chopsticks in rice as I was told and never forgot...

Never mind, this is a person who doesn't give birthday gifts or Christmas cards, sulks at Valentines Day, sneers at children on Halloween and if the thoughts on burial and ceremony are consistent with their own lifestyle then he/she already has a hole dug in their garden and when it comes to the end of their life they'll just climb in with some seeds in their pocket waiting to die and decompose.

These traditions and 'superstitions' are a big part of what makes the Japanese 'Japanese'. Perhaps one day all mankind will finally ditch the unnecessary and inconvenient cultural baggage it is currently saddled with and instead exist in a truly homogeneous future with the same clothes and the same food and the same hobbies and the same language.

The number and thoughtfulness of the replies to your post demonstrate to me how good it was that you didn't just ignore the comment. Also, your reply was open and honest and allowed for discussion, which is why we're all responding, I think. To me, it's all in our attitude: we can express something with rancor and derision, foreclosing any discussion (much less enlightenment), or we can have the courage to admit that we have a particular stance that comes from our own experiences and biases but isn't necessarily how things have to be. I had no idea it was disrespectful to stick one's chopsticks straight up in rice, nor, when I went to temples in Thailand did I know it was disrespectful to sit with my feet facing Buddha. I'm much more open to learning - in fact, it becomes exciting and mind-opening - when I don't fear getting my hand slapped in response.

The number and thoughtfulness of the replies to your post demonstrate to me how good it was that you didn't just ignore the comment. Also, your reply was open and honest and allowed for discussion, which is why we're all responding, I think. To me, it's all in our attitude: we can express something with rancor and derision, foreclosing any discussion (much less enlightenment), or we can have the courage to admit that we have a particular stance that comes from our own experiences and biases but isn't necessarily how things have to be. I had no idea it was disrespectful to stick one's chopsticks straight up in rice, nor, when I went to temples in Thailand did I know it was disrespectful to sit with my feet facing Buddha. I'm much more open to learning - in fact, it becomes exciting and mind-opening - when I don't fear getting my hand slapped in response.

Traditions are in some ways merely an extensions of ritual, the whole point of which is to connect us to something deeper than the pragmatic necessities of life. There is art to "tradition", to "good manners" and they are part of what separate us from wild animals. If that is "spiritual" vs. secular, it is of the human spirit, and to think that these practices are merely religious and therefore should be abandoned is ignoring one of mankind's more appealing qualities, grace.

The comment sounds like it was born out of a judgmental mind, doesn't it? I'd hate to see what kind of dinner guest they'd make...

I'm a drama (and English) teacher and I do a whole unit on rituals with my kids. And yes, we talk about different rituals associated with different religions. More importantly, we talk about those rituals and social mores associated with everyday life and society. Really, I want students to think about why they act the way they act. To think that you do not participate in rituals every day or that rituals are this archaic concept belonging only to the realm of religion... well, I think that's woefully ignorant of your own society and actions.

Traditions aren't about whether they are "useful" or not, they are about respecting our history as a people/culture, and respecting the past that gave rise to the traditions. Traditions are about situating one's self in the context of a people and community, about being a part of something larger. Not everyone wants to feel that way - fine. But that sort of respect is why we as a people don't, say, run around in public with no clothes on, or urinate on people's front lawns, or throw things at people just for fun. Respect for our societally-constructed rules, and for the feelings and beliefs of other people, is what keeps us in cohesive, peaceful societies. There is a lot of really interesting psychology and sociology research on what "keeping the peace" in a society means... but universal to everyone is the idea of respect.

A funny story about respecting and observing traditions:

When my mother-in-law died, my husbands Orthodox Jewish aunt held the shivah at her house. Another of his aunts (Jewish, but Reformed) and I were in the kitchen, keeping the milk, meat, and parve foods and dishes and silverware separated.

We were supervised by the daughters of the house, but Helene checked in occasionally. On one of her visits she saw that we were about to wipe some spilled fruit juice off the floor with dish-soap and paper towels.

"NO! No! Wait a minute!" and she disappeared. The other aunt and I were mystified by what forbidden un-orthodox thing we had been about to do!

Turned out the Helene had just installed a new wood floor was told to use only this special cleaning agent on it.

Ilove that! Nothing more sacred than a brand new wooden floor ^_^

I don't know if the original poster is from the US, but the US is ALL about respect and tolerance for other cultures. I know we are not perfect, but I'd like to think that we try to understand. If the original poster considers him/herself 'American', then shame on you.

Yes, the original post was certainly ignorant and insensitive.

I am of Japanese ancestry, but grew up in the US. There are things that Japanese do that Westerners find odd or rude (slurping noodles loudly, picking up a bowl of soup or noodles and drinking the broth). I once saw a Japanese TV drama where they were trying to teach Japanese not to eat this way when traveling outside of Japan or when eating Western style foods. I think we should consider that saying about 'when in Rome, do as the Romans'

I really enjoyed the article on chopstick etiquette -- and so did my husband when I asked him to read it. We spend time on Kauai every year. The island has a large Japanese descent population, though one rarely hears Japanese spoken other than a word or two. It seems that everyone uses chopsticks with ease, even ethnic Hawaiians. Tourists are provided with forks as a courtesy, though there is no offense if you request chopsticks. I love the variety of foods there and the customs. Part of traveling is to widen one's perspective and experience.

Colonial Americans deliberately shifted the fork use to the right hand to differentiate themselves from the British and other Europeans. We put the knife down when finished cutting so the knife is not a constant threat to others -- again contrary to an old practice. Though seemingly awkward, it's been our table etiquette for hundreds of years. Some younger Americans think it's chic to eat European style, but they don't respect or perhaps don't know their history. In my mind, it's akin to sticking chopsticks upright in the rice bowl.

I know this is getting off topic, but during WW2, American spies could be spotted in Europe if they were seen switching their forks while eating. It is a tough habit to break, and I hope that fork switching does not offend Europeans, because I can't help but do it the American way. I know some British friends of mine just found it amusing.

a) Are you sure that's the explanation for the difference in eating styles? wikipedia's(admittedly not the most authoritative source) article on eating utensil etiquette implies that the eating styles developed independently since American colonists established themselves before customs of fork usage were widespread in Europe.

b) Are you sure it's because younger Americans think it's chic? Everyone I know eats the way they do either because they find it more comfortable or because it's the way they were taught (especially if their family immigrated more recently).

Perhaps I should have said colonists in Revolutionary days, which would have made a deliberate switch more easily accepted -- along with the Declaration of Independence. The use of forks and knives for eating purposes would have been well established by then. My mother's parents came from Germany pre 1900, yet she and her siblings all grew up eating American style.

Hi Maki, What a strange thing for someone to get angry about! I LOVE learning about odd cultural and social customs - it's one of the things that makes travel so interesting.

I'm from the UK and I lived with 2 Chinese students for a year and they could almost always explain why a dining 'rule' or tradition existed (they gave the same reason for the chop sticks in the rice bowl). But they were very keen to learn 'English' etiquette or traditions which left me and the other English students very short on reasons! I remember often having to reply to a perfectly sensible question about why something wasn't considered polite with, "No reason, it just isn't" which must have been very frustrating!!

What are your views on shark fin soup, as a customary display of hospitality? How about whaling or dolphin hunting? Cannibalism? Obviously, the chopstick thing is quite harmless (except maybe to one person on the internet). But there is a tendency to sugar coat the friction that can result from differences in tradition and custom. Everyone draws a line somewhere, and if you travel widely enough, you'll eventually encounter it (unless you're a trained anthropologist or something!).

As I have pointed out already, the choice of what we (the collective "we"as in humankind) differs a lot from society to society. To the Jainists consuming root vegetables is a taboo. Now, to most other people a potato is harmless. But would you laugh at people who believe otherwise?

And, I do believe that the consumption of shark or whale or oppossum or koala bears or whatever it might be, is not that different. Specifically, I know that the subject of whale hunting and shark fishing has been a tremendously emotive one in the past few years, that have been reported in often quite sensationalist ways in the West. (I am even going to hazard a guess that you're in the UK and saw the recent Gorden Ramsay show about shark fishing. If you're not, never mind ^_^) In Asian countries these things are reported differently, and regarded rather differently too. It's quite a political topic, which I believe will take many years to sort itself out. I think that in general, Western civilization has had this unfortunate tendency to be sanctimonious and judgemental towards other cultures, while forgetting about their own foibles. So I do tend to be rather skeptical regarding these anti- (fill in some food source that is, as a rule, not consumed on a widespread level in the society the protesters belong to) movements.

Now, cannibalism is something that has sorted itself out to almost everyone's satisfaction. So if someone is willfully engaging in cannibalism they are doing so for the purpose of going against societal mores. But, let's say one of those 'lost' tribes in the depths or the Amazon or something still engage in some form of cannibalism. Do we condemn them? What if they find the Western habit of killing cows for consumption to be horrific? Are they justified in condemning the whole of Western society? Hindus for example do not eat beef since the cow is sacred in that religion. Are they wrong, right, just odd and exotic, different from you? Will you respect that difference or condemn it?

Morality really is a society-specific thing. In most cases, I prefer to stay on the side of respecting the wishes of others rather than trying to impose my views on them - as long as they're not going to force me to do something against my morals.

Hmm, that all sounds quite liberatarian I guess. ^_^;

"Now, cannibalism is something that has sorted itself out to almost everyone’s satisfaction."
I loved that part, the "almost" made me laugh out loud :D

Obviously each individual has the right to choose whether to follow traditions or not. If you don't want to eat shark fin soup, nobody is forcing it down your throat. However, you shouldn't go to someone's house where you know they'll serve shark fin soup and then throw a huge fit about it. It's easy to look at other cultures and say "Oh, that's so wrong, I can't believe people do that", but just remember that they could be saying the same thing about your traditions.

My dad spent nearly five years in hawaii where he learned how to eat with chops sticks. A couple of times a year he would take us to China Town in San Francisco for dinner. He insisted we use chopsticks for at least part of our dinner and taught us that to stick them in the rice was "bad luck".
There are many cultural practices that seem odd on the surface, but which make very good sense when you examine them in their proper context. The Tibetan practice of "sky burial" where a corpse is dismembered and fed to the vultures sounds gross and bizarre to us, but it makes very good sense in a land where firewood is scarce and tillable land is too precious to waste on cemeteries.
I, for one, rejoice in cultural and religious differences. Why would we travel if everywhere was exactly the same? I've been lucky to have travelled a bit and can slurp my noodles with the best in a little shop in Shinjuku station. Anon needs to broaden her horizons and open her mind to the glorious variety of our little world.

As a mixed race person, I feel very strongly about the progressive homogenization of cultures under the tidal wave of modernity & globalism. The little peculiarities of each culture are what make them so interesting, and they are what keep their descendents connected to their larger cultural groups. I am not one to blankly say that all cultures are equally great, but they all have aspects that deserve respect enough to be preserved. The same goes for religious faith. As a Christian I believe that a grounding in faith based principals gives us far more hope and grounding than thinking that we are merely swirling bags of atoms who have merely gained pointless sentience. Besides, cultural and religious oddities have shaped our diets for a very long time, and it's what we owe many of our great foods to today.

it's so nice to see how people are responding so well to this anon. person's rather rude comment. it brings to mind an incident my friend told me about one of his friends. this friend is a strict vegetarian but had decided to go to Africa on missions & would be staying with a local family. knowing that the family would most likely be serving some sort of meat & that it would an insult to refuse since meat is a bit of a luxury over there, she spent some months gradually acclimating herself to eating meat so that she wouldn't insult her host family.

obviously it doesn't apply to every social custom, but it's nice to know that there are people who can show such a deep respect for others, even if it means a bit of sacrifice on your own part, when possible, unlike our anonymous commenter.
btw, she reverted back to being vegetarian once she went home. :)

Agreed! I try to respect other culture's customs, culinary and otherwise, when dealing with them. As a non-religious American, I still say Gesundheit if someone sneezes. I don't stick my chopsticks straight up in my rice EVER, whether I'm in a Japanese diner in the US or in my home in Japan. I throw my 5 yen into temple coffers even though I'm not Buddhist. I cover my head if I go into cathedrals that require me to, even though I'm not Catholic.

This matter of chopsticks isn't a compromise that subjugates personal freedom. It's not racist. It's not sexist. It's not classist, ageist, or homophobic. Not sticking your chopsticks up in you rice is not hindering you from eating or from living your life. It's a simple, basic act of respecting other people's cultures.

Thank you for the great post!

That was a ridiculously silly and glaringly narrow-minded comment above. I think it's alright that you do not believe in another person's superstitions, but it is only polite that you respect them.

Such traditions should be treasured, I think, and in fact, being Chinese, I bemoan the fact that, as the years go by, I forget more of the reasons why we practice certain traditions during a festival, e.g. Lunar New Year.

I liked your reply post. I thought it was a very well thought out answer.

As a side note, since it's lunar new year now, I had a question - do Japanese celebrate something similar? I know the Koreans do, so I was just wondering, since the ties between the three cultures are historically close.

haha, being asian myself i didn't know most of those chopstick customs before i read that post... i think traditions can be pretty fun and i love rituals from different cultures, but i also remember good times from when i was little of when my mom told me not to put my chopsticks together, which just made me did it more because i found it funny that it was meant for dead people... i guess it's all good as long as it's in fun! i'm not gonna do that when eating with a grumpy great grandmother, but i do enjoy playing drums with my chopsticks on cups with different amounts of water in them... they make different sounds it's cool! :P so of course respect for everyone is needed, those with different views, those with no views, and those that like to play with views... nobody means to offend they're just doing what makes them happy, and life is meant to be enjoyed! so i say do it if it makes you happy at that moment! (the Jainism thing is cool. reminds me of my meat eating friends who say they are "meatarians" in response to my being veggie, because they can't stand seeing those poor vegetables being killed and nommed by me..)

The comment, from my view, was rather disrespectful of other people's customs and traditions. Even if you disagree with other people's views and customs, there is no need to be rude about it.

Being Chinese, it's also a no-no to stick the chopsticks upright in the bowl of rice for the same reason as yours and also because doing so make look like incense during mourning.

I may not follow most of my customs and traditions fully but I am aware of them and will adhere to them when situation calls for.

First time commenter. I hope you don't mind.

This is food for thought and it was an informative read. Thank you Maki. :) Although I must say, the comment was highly offensive and they sound so sure that their "culture" is superior than everyone elses.

Who are we to judge another's cultural habit? I still find eating kangaroo meat to be odd, but who am I question wherever it is right or wrong? Considering the Aboriginals have eaten them in the past as part of their diet. I won't go into whale meat or shark fin because that's another matter all together.

Being Asian too, it's also considered taboo to have chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. Sure some may think it's silly, but to others it represents traditions and culture. Like my mum's belief that during the Lunar New Year one of the first things you have to buy are eggs and sugar. I have yet to question wherever such items would bring in a prosperous New Year, but oh well.

Great post, Maki. It's really important to respect traditions. I spent two years in Japan and learned to eat the "Japanese way"--whether it was not drinking juice during meals, holding chopsticks correctly, or using the correct condiments... My host mother taught me so many things and I really feel like I got a true "taste" of Japan during that time. Food is an art and should be respected as such. If only I could explain to North American friends why pouring soy sauce directly into a bowl of rice should not be done. Ever!

i think the thing is this: a lot of americans are nihilists at heart. they hate all the pretense and tradition and anything that involves culture. i remember when i first moved to japan, i was like: i'll follow these rules, but it's all BS, people are so blind and blah blah blah. But, i think that it all stems from growing up in a cultureless white protestant suburb. so anything that smacks of culture, it's threatening and inconvenient, so it's easier to just dismiss. I think once you live in another country, and realize that culture adds beauty and meaning to life, you reconsider things. the rules stop being oppressive and become enriching.

There are two things that I am always keen to learn: Firstly, when I inadvertently act in an impolite manner; secondly, why certain traditions are the way they are.

I found your etiquette post informative and interesting, satisfying both my desire not to offend those around me (on those rare, precious occasions when I use chopsticks) and also teaching me why these customs have arisen. I am fairly certain that no chopsticks I have ever eaten have touched someone's ashes, and I rather doubt that many people could say differently. Nevertheless I shall bear in mind that passing food from chopstick to chopstick is considered rude in some Asian cultures and will refrain from doing it; not because I am concerned that my eating utensils may have been used in a funeral ceremony, but because I choose not to cause offence to those around me, even if the only people who might notice are restaurant staff!

Hey Miki, this is my first post on here. First I want to thank you for this site, as I am so happy to be able to cook Japanese cuisine for my friends and family now, whereas 6 months ago I couldn't cook a thing, let alone Japanese food.

And I want to say I completely agree with your post. I'm an atheist and I try to observe traditional customs out of respect for society, even the chop stick etiquette when I'm neither Buddhist nor Japanese, and neither are the people who I practice this etiquette around out of respect for the tradition.

And as a Californian of mixed European ancestry, my family didn't have many traditions with food. The only one that ever mattered to us was turkey and the traditional spread for Thanksgiving. There has only been one year where we didn't have turkey, and it was a very unsatisfying Thanksgiving for our family, so we had to cook a Turkey that following weekend just to make up for it. And I since I'm a Californian without many cultural traditions, that's why I'm so drawn to Japanese culture and cuisine. My family never said grace growing up, but I find myself saying, even if just to myself, "itadakimasu" just to give it more meaning, even as an atheist.

So keep up the good work Maki, love your site, and I look forward to many more posts from you!

After reading your post and first thinking "We don't really have any traditions in the UK", it got me thinking and actually there are. I don't know if any of these might be particular to Yorkshire but a few that sprang to mind are:

Bonfire night has quite a few: bonfire toffee, parkin, pork pie and mushy peas.
Never cross your knife and fork on a plate when you've finished, always leave them side by side. I think that's something to do with saying you didn't enjoy your meal.
Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
Mucky fat sandwiches the day after doing roast beef.
The cook gets the rice pudding skin when it's done.

That's a few anyway.

The UK certainly has tons of traditions surrounding food I think! Christmas pudding with little surprises inside, Christmas goose (now turkey, but that's a New World introduction), hot cross buns, strawberries and cream at Wimbledon... ^_^ And in Scotland of course there's haggis on Robert Burns' birthday...

There's a difference between respecting others' beliefs as you'd like yours to be respected vs. actively participating in rituals that might be contrary to your own beliefs. As a Catholic, I don't expect people to genuflect before the Eucharist if they don't believe it's God, but when people break into a Catholic Church and desecrate the Eucharist, it sickens me -- because to me, that *is* God that they are desecrating. In the same vein, I would not bow before a statue of a different god, but if I entered a temple, I would try to respect the beliefs of that religion.

I never thought to try to stand chopsticks up in rice, but now that I know, I would never do that. It's just common human decency to treat others as you would like to be treated.

Some traditions that I've encountered: a Polish tradition that it's bad luck to put shoes on the table (even new shoes in a box, or shoes inside of luggage, etc.), and an Irish tradition that "it's a sin to throw out potatoes." New Orleans has the Three Kings cake for Epiphany, where the person who gets the baby Jesus statue in their piece is king for the day. There's the Mexican tradition of putting out food for the dead for All Souls Day.

I personally really like the Japanese tradition of removing your shoes when you enter a building, especially after having Asian roommates for 3 years and learning in courses about how many germs you can pick up on your shoes. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out how to politely get others to do that in my home.

I think that no-shoes-on-table thing is a Europe-wide leas t I have encountered it in the UK and Switzerland too. And the Three Kings thing is observed in middle Europe too, in different ways; in Switzerland the little plastic baby Jesus is in a special kind of bread. And France has a big tradition of favors or fèves in various baked goodies...people collect the fèves too.

I'm not sure the removing shoes thing is a tradition or just a lifestyle thing. Many Asian cultures sit on the floors in their homes so removing dirty shoes at the entrance makes more sense, than the European way (and mainstream American culture is still largely based on European culture). European homes used to have floors so filthy that people would just throw down bones there and removing shoes didn't make a lot of sense. ^_^;

I am not to sure about other European countries, but I by myself am Austrian and in Austria it is common courtesy to take off your shoes before entering or in the hallway/tiny room in the entrance of the house, unless you are told otherwise by the host. I myself was very shocked when as a teen I lived in the US for a year and everyone entered the house with their shoes on and even wearing shoes while sitting/lying in bed. Well, now I live in Colombia and here it is also common to wear your shoes or sandals inside and I've gotten used to it, also because here all houses have tile-floors (which are cold to the feet), different from more barefoot-friendly wood- or carpet-floors in Austria.

Not respecting other's customs and/or beliefs is just ignorant. I was raised in a very eclectic home. My mother was Athiest with Vegetarian eating habits, my father is Catholic and eats most things but seafods.. My friends are all very different and they have their own customs. If I go to Friend A's house I know that they say grace before each meal. Friend B is Jewish so I know not to bring anything that isn't Kosher over as a hostess gift. I was always taught that no matter what you respect the "Law of the Land" and that's what I do. Its all about being respectful. Do I Agree with all beliefs or eating habits? Of course not. But, I respect them all.

I am impressed by the courtesy shown to anon...
go get your kicks somewhere else TROLL
or did you get b& from /b?

Just ignore it and it will go away, that being said I really like the old Japanese custom of picking through the cremains to collect the larger pieces of bone to put in a reliquary. Unfortunately here in the US they use a higher temperature and then put the cremains through the equivalent of a blender to create a uniform ash. BORING!

As an American living in Japan, I find some of the traditions a little silly, especially the ones that have been commercialized for profit. However, the idea behind many of them is important and ritual can make things fun. Why do we have to turn to a specific direction while eating sushi on setsubun? Well, why do we eat turkey on Thanksgiving??

Working in our restaurant, every day we wash the bowls and cups from the family altar and refill them with tea, water, and rice. I appreciate how my wife's family has made it an everyday habit even though I'm nonreligious myself.

thanks for the post,
gaijinfarmer (.com)

Hi all, I'm French and we of course have a variety of traditions and customs throughout the country.
Off the top of my head here's one on bread.
In my family it is not acceptable to have the bread on the table facing down. When I asked my mom why, she said it was just not right to leave it like that. Then I researched this when I got older and found out that this upside-down bread thing would have people react quite strongly because it was the way bread was put on the executioner's table for him to eat after he would have completed his duty. That is when we still had death penalty in France.
For this reason, I usually turn bread on the "right" side when it is upside down. Not because of the bloody background story but because it is part of who I am, and well in a way I feel it connects me to my family and ancestors.

I think food and eating traditions are the most direct path to cultural knowledge. Though I am not religious now, I lived when young with my Eastern Orthodox grandparents, and they had numerous religious holidays with specific food to be eaten for each. We kept the "no meat on Friday" rule which was pretty silly, but strict. On special holidays like Easter, Christmas (we did Santa with the other people, and religiously later on their traditional calendar, kind of like Asians in America with Lunar New Year), there was a solemn attitude around the table, prayers said by head of household, and my great-grandmother would be helped to the table (she was frail and usually ate in her room.) On Easter, we were given blessed large "host" wafer from the Church and a communion-like ceremony was performed where we all passed the host around, dipped it in a honey bowl, and took one bite.

Even though I don't believe in religion, the family and community meaning of these ceremonies has not left me. I know how cool it would be for me to get a memory of my grandmother's table. Why would anyone want to reject or belittle these feelings?

I have always wanted to go to Japan - I hope next year. I have been learning Japanese and also practicing Japanese etiquette, because it is a way to bond with people there. I learned proper 箸 use from a 日本人の友人 years ago, and I practice in the "China Buffets" which pass for Asian restaurants in my area. It's all we have, although when I lived in LA and SF we had the best!

But what is really cool is that waitresses have approached me several times with what appeared to be genuine delight, and even a customer one time, saying essentially "It is so unusual to see an American using chopsticks correctly and eating the way we do." Even if they don't speak, I usually get a little "love pat" on the shoulder when they bring the check.

I hope my desire to learn Asian customs makes others feel a little more at home. I have never thanked them in Japanese, because most of them are not Japanese and even when I think they are, I'm not sure. But if I did, I would say ありがとう、いただきます、おいしい - the same thing I say about your indispensable blogs! I bought your Just Bento book and it's totally in my life!


I grew up in Japan so while it seems second nature to me when I have friends over to eat who don't know chopstick etiquette it can be awkward.

Respecting other cultural beliefs is not only part of the baggage of globalisation but also a way of respecting others.

plus really, is it really so much as if we were at the table I'd read the action to be a sign of you offering your meal to the dead? No. I would see it as being poor table manners as biting your fork or having your elbows on the table during the meal.

It's disrespect through ignorance - and too 'anon.' whom seems to think chopsticks are sooooo backward - I guess they could be? but then the japanese also had developed their table etiquette and were using cutlery way before the west was.

Hope you and your loved ones are ok. Keeping Japan in our prayers.

One of the fascinating parts of living in this time frame is the exposure we get from many different cultures.

Born and raised in the northern part of Europe and since moved to the US, I have had many experiences with many different cultures.

Two things stand out for me. The first one is the importance of preserving your heritage. Keeping the culture and customs. It is so much part of our roots and who we are. It saddens me that after over 20 years away from my home country, I have forgotten so many of the customs my family lived for centuries past.

The second is to show respect for other cultures and customs. Even when we don't understand, or it may seem weird or strange. Unless it is forced upon me, what business is it of mine to tell someone that their heritage is wrong?

In the end, if it feels possible, the best way to move on from those who lack understanding is to just allow for their lack of understanding.

OK, so I need to go and practice that now ;-) lol...

Ah, please open up and read this...
Think: what cooking utensils aren't used to deal with corpses? The knife has cut the cow's corpse and the carrot's in the same night!

And why is it that when some have thought of spirits- they've perhaps thought of the unreal? Why is it when some have thought of God- they've perhaps thought of the unreal? He is real, is spirit and He is living.

I agree that misery is unto the dogmatists. But who amongst men isn't a dogmatist? Certainly, that the traditions of men (ie: Always wipe your feet off at the door) are lesser than the laws of God (ie: Compassion; Don't murder; Honor your Father and Mother).

But if you look inside, perhaps you will discover you yourself are offspring of the Living One. And when you find out what you do have within, it is that which you have which will save you -let it be for Good and to honor the Almighty!

Peace and honor to the Christ.

I am an atheist and I find that comment offensive! No one has the right to call anyone's traditions "useless"--I believe in showing respect to ALL people, not just the people who happen to believe the same as I. I am currently living in Okinawa and when I learn of a local custom, I try to show respect by adhering to that custom. I am the visitor here. By making that effort, I show that I am enjoying living here and want to better understand the culture. It has nothing to do with my personal beliefs (or lack thereof) or feelings. Show respect by respecting the customs. How would Christians feel if other cultures ridiculed them for Easter? Or Muslims if they were persecuted for Ramadan? Imagine the affront if I were to offer someone living in the Middle East a gift with my left hand! There are important reasons for these customs and it does no harm to honor them. I think that greater harm is inflicted when we choose to disregard them.

No one is persecuting anyone... Please calm down in your eagerness to show everyone what a tolerant atheist you are.

I believe that all "different anon" was saying is that she didn't see the need for traditions which have no positive benefit to the individual or culture, such as the taboo against standing chopsticks up in a bowl of rice. There is no benefit to not doing so, and no harm is likely to come to you as a result of such actions (other than the glares from the more traditional or superstitious people). Which is precisely why she thinks it would be better not to have them, because then you wouldn't be condemned for a harmless action.

I personally would also not be sorry to see "pointless" superstitions fade away... My Philipina helper told me that her armpits were darker than her sisters because when she first got her period, she didn't tuck cotton wool under her arms and jump on the stairs three times. She seriously believed that there was a real causal relationship between the cotton and the whiteness of her sisters' underarms.... I mean, what. Honestly!

(Please be respectful of other peoples' opinions when you comment. I'm not allowing any that contain personal attacks.)